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Stop Shaming Black Friday Shoppers

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For many people, it’s the only time certain necessary items fall within their budgets.

Shoppers in front of Black Friday sign Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

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On Thanksgiving, I received an email from one of my favorite retailers, Everlane. The subject line said, “Skip The Sales. Make A Difference.” Everlane was urging customers to support its annual Black Friday Fund, the proceeds of which would go toward 4,000 meals for workers, a “clean” denim factory, and an organic farm to combat unregulated pesticide use in Vietnam.

It’s undeniably a great cause, and because the San Francisco-based clothing startup has distinguished itself with transparent prices it says are 50 percent lower than the competition’s, I get why Everlane isn’t having a Black Friday sale.

Everlane isn’t alone. The outdoorsy brand REI urged its customers to spend Friday outside, while Modcloth announced it was donating more than $5 million in merchandise to charitable organization Dress for Success, a move that likely offset some of the criticism it faced after Walmart acquired the formerly indie brand. By announcing their benevolent reasons for skipping Black Friday, retailers stand to make a profit from customers who support their worthy causes. Smaller brands, like Brother Vellies, say they simply can’t offer their wares for less. But whatever reasons companies provide for sitting out the sales, the messaging can often come off as smug, if not downright insensitive.

Brother Vellies is a case in point. Its Black Friday mailer read, “It’s not that we don’t love discounted VCRs — we do! But it kind of stops there. Don’t people die every year shopping on Black Friday? We don’t want that for you. They’re just shoes.”

But for people living from paycheck to paycheck, the annual shopping event can be about far more than “just shoes.” Last week, Shay Stewart-Bouley, executive director of Community Change Inc., wrote a viral tweet encouraging Black Friday’s critics to consider the Americans who depend on holiday sales year after year:

One Twitter user responded by recalling how her mother, who had to work on the shopping holiday, sent her to buy “basic things we just couldn't afford, save for Black Friday” such as “towels, clothes, and a new toaster.”

During other parts of the year, buying things like a pair of new sneakers or heels may mean paying the utility bill late or getting fewer groceries that month. The very existence of organizations like Shoes That Fit, which provides footwear to needy schoolchildren nationally, reveals that families right here in the US struggle to afford the wardrobe staple. It’s not only a problem that families in developing nations have, and it’s not a new problem domestically: An investigation by the Los Angeles Times from the year 2000 found that nearly three-quarters of children attending the Los Angeles Unified School District lived in impoverished households with parents who struggle to buy them clothing and footwear.

While I have never lived in poverty, I have certainly been too cash-strapped to replace a pair of shoes as soon as I would like, and I recognize that many Americans continue to struggle to make ends meet. In fact, 57 percent of Americans say they cannot afford to pay for a surprise $500 expense. When we talk about Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals, we need to focus on these people in addition to the problems with mass consumption. They may not all fit the federal government’s definition of poor, but they are most certainly broke.

I’m acutely aware that many Americans, myself included, have an overspending problem, and that Black Friday and Cyber Monday likely exacerbate the issue. I’ve read (and highly recommend) Elizabeth Cline’s book, Overdressed, about the repercussions of overconsumption — environmental, emotional, and otherwise. Minimalists and anti-capitalists alike may lament the data showing that this year on Black Friday, Americans spent a record $5 billion, and Cyber Monday 2017 is set to break records as well. Sure, that’s great news for corporations, especially since consumers may actually find even better deals before Thanksgiving week or in January, after the holiday spending rush has subsided.

But when critics shame Black Friday and Cyber Monday shoppers, they’re not just attacking Americans who shop like it’s a competitive sport; they’re also shaming Americans who can only afford to shop at the start of the holiday season. Boycotting Black Friday and Cyber Monday is a privilege, but shopping on these days remains a necessity for all too many.